Tag Archives: first lines

The High Stakes of First Sentences

5727282051_02397935ed_b

You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

Advertisements

That Pesky First Sentence

You’ve got the premise of your novel. You know your characters, the central conflict, and the ending. You may even know how you want to start your novel, but you can’t figure out that first sentence.3261090753_48fa0fe0a2

The opening sentence to a novel is very important. Many people, including a number of agents and editors, will not read beyond the first sentence if they don’t like it. (That’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence!) That’s why writing a stellar first sentence is monumental. More often than not, what you originally think of for the opening line is not what ends up as the first sentence.

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably a good thing.

Great opening lines lure readers in. They entice them.

First lines can be:

  • Vivid. “The rabbit had been run over minutes before.” Sabriel by Garth Nix

Most people have seen an animal that’s been hit by a car before, so this sentence sends an instant picture to the forefront of readers’ minds.

  • Create a specific image. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Readers get an image of a woman entering an apartment, who is identical to the narrator’s wife, but who doesn’t seem to be her. That’s distinct, and catches the attention. (For those familiar with psychology, Capgras Syndrome probably comes to mind.)

  • Ask a question. “They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.” The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Who are the “Unregistereds?” Why are they being hung? With that first sentence, readers have questions they want answered.

  • Foreshadow. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Twilight fan, the opening line of Stephanie Meyer’s preface leaves readers wondering what’s going to happen to the protagonist to make her think like that.

  • State something absurd. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Really? A pleasure? Right away readers want to know what Bradbury is talking about.

  • Clear. “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.” Delirium by Lauren Olivier

Readers get a quick summary of the past sixty-some years, and also know what’s going to play a big part in the novel.

  • Short and to the point. “I am the vampire Lestat.” The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

This line does nothing overtly other than introduce readers to the protagonist. However, it’s a very impactful line, and says a lot about the character we’ll be following.

  • Surprising. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so what’s going on? One sentence in and there’s already an unexpected question in readers’ minds.

First lines vary widely from each other because books vary widely. A wonderful opening sentence for one novel won’t be right for another one. But what all successful opening lines do is capture readers’ attention.

How do you write a great first line?

Practice.

There’s no getting around it. Write an opening sentence, get feedback on it, rewrite it, get more feedback, and repeat that cycle until people are hooked on your opening sentence.

Another piece of advice?

Don’t fret too much about the opening line until after your first draft is written. As you write your novel, more ideas come to you, and your novel may take a drastic turn during the course of your writing. Once you have all eight-thousand or so words written, then go back to the beginning. Who knows? Maybe you’ll need to rewrite the entire opening to fit your novel’s ending.

What’s your favorite opening line from a novel you’ve read?

That Pesky Opening

A novel’s beginning is sometimes one of the most difficult aspects a writer faces. It gives the first impression, and, as we learn growing up, first impressions are very important.

The writer must grab a reader’s attention from the first sentence and continue to keep it. (And I’m not just talking about once a book is published. Many agents won’t read past the first line – the first paragraph – of a submitted novel if it doesn’t grab their attention.)

As much as writers hope that readers would give more than the first page or so of a novel a chance, for the most part that’s not the case. Hooking readers from the get-go is necessary to keep them reading.

Some examples of attention-grabbing opening lines:

  • “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty three since the scientists perfected a cure.” – Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell
  • “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.” – Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone.” – Gone by Michael Grant
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Once that opening line or two is written, the rest of the page needs to continue to draw the reader in.

There are many ways to catch and keep a reader’s interest. Here are some more common ways:

  1. Start in the right place. Begin at the start of a conflict and build momentum from that first moment. If you start the novel by discussing something interesting that happened before the novel began, think about including that interesting event instead of simply talking about it (showing vs. telling). Likewise, including long, winding descriptions or a flashback before the story has moved forward at all isn’t all that compelling.
    1. In Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly, the author begins with the main character getting caught in the rush at the post office when one of the dead comes down the street. (Opening line: “‘Dead!’ a woman screamed. ‘It’s the Dead!’”)
  2. Include action. This does not mean throwing in a random car or plane crash. Every action needs to have context. Without meaning behind it, action becomes pointless. Action doesn’t have to be huge, it can simply be the character standing at a street corner and turning left instead of right like she has done every day for the past three years.
  3. Don’t jump ahead of your readers. Two points here. One: have your readers care about your characters before you put your characters in jeopardy. Two: don’t make the beginning confusing, even if the opening ends up making sense later. If readers don’t care or if they’re confused, they will most likely stop reading.
  4. Ground your characters. Set the scene. You can have great dialogue, but if the reader has no idea where the conversation is happening, it takes away from the novel. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, include paragraphs of background at the beginning. But including a couple of lines depicting laughter, the clanking of glasses, the thudding of feet against concrete, the screech of a bird, or the rich smell of hazelnut coffee will help readers to visualize where the conversation is occurring.
  5. Don’t forget the momentum. The opening should show off the character’s distinctive voice. It should show the audience the point of view the story is being told from, as well as introducing readers to the plot.
    1. The Giver by Lois Lowry quickly introduces the main character and his voice: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.”

If an opening is done well, readers will feel that internal tug to keep reading. They may ask themselves why the grandmother felt the need to burn those letters, how a group of people could allow someone to be chosen at random to be sacrificed, where a girl’s brother disappeared to all those years ago, or the identity of a shadow following a young mother in a picture that was taken the night she was murdered.

Have any suggestions on ways to write a great opening?